*******chapter one: the Phantom City
Matthew Carson cursed silently, his throat too parched to form coherent words. Damn Mustafa to the lowest hell, he thought bitterly, referring to the treacherous guide who had stolen his camels, equipment and supplies whilst he slept, and abandoned him to die a slow but certain death in the Libyan Desert, whose harsh extent stretches from the Nile River across western Egypt.
Rolling upon his side, Carson drew forth his compass, and a battered and aged volume from his shirt – some of his few possessions the thieving wretch had not considered worth pilfering - and gazed upon the book’s soiled cover.
A wry smile curved his cracked lips as he thought of the words most likely written upon his Death Certificate (though he doubted that anyone would ever find his desiccated corpse): “Death by misadventure.” He croaked a hollow laugh at that idea as he reflected upon what had brought him to this distant land, his mind traveling back to those days of lost naivety.
How well he remembered his scholastic ineptitude that had denied him a University degree, the long hard years of self-education in the field of Egyptology, the burning desire to gain Academia’s respect with a discovery all his own. Indeed, it was only a recent lottery win that had allowed him sufficient funds to travel to Egypt in pursuit of his dream, and he had seized the opportunity with fervor.
Carson’s grandfather, an Egyptian-born Englishman and historian, had authored the diary he now held. It contained a translation of The Scroll of Nutua, the work of a scribe who lived during the Middle Kingdom of Egyptian history. According to the account, the city of Amonubis and the extensive oasis in which it was built had vanished overnight, swallowed up by some vast inexplicable event.
Drawing himself back to the present, Carson opened the book, and again examined the faded map that purported to show the city’s location, based upon a tale told to his Grandfather by an old fellahin*. It was a fantastic story that had captured his imagination from the outset even though he suspected it was embellished with exaggerations.
[* An Egyptian peasant or laborer.]
He knew his Grandfather had placed little faith in the account, merely recording it as an idle curio, dismissing it as the mere persistence of a legend from ancient times. But Carson thought there might be some substance to the tale, for his own research had revealed the local Bedouin possessed an independent legend of a city that would sometimes appear in ghostly form, then vanish again as mysteriously as it had come.
In reality, Amonubis had most likely been flattened by an earthquake during the height of a simoom**, and thus quickly buried, with the shifting dunes uncovering and then recovering the ruins at intervals during the passing ages, or so Carson reasoned.
[** A sandstorm.]
Putting away the book, the man gathered his fading strength, lurched to his feet, consulted his compass, and staggered on in the direction the map indicated. He could have turned back, true, but from the moment he had been abandoned Carson knew he’d never walk out of the desert alive, being about mid point between the Kharaga Oasis and Edfu, and to a dead man one direction was as good as another.
If I’m going to die, he had thought. Then I’ll try and discover something worthwhile before I do, and thus add meaning to my end.
Would this stoic philosophy be of any comfort when death’s dread hand fell upon him? In all honesty, Carson had his doubts, but was determined to face the end as bravely as he could. Mostly, though, his thoughts were for his parents, and the grief his foolishness would cause them.
Onward he marched, placing one foot mechanically in front of the other, the endless dunes passing by in unremitting progression. In a daze, he staggered on, vision blurred, baked by the furnace heat of the barren waste.
Suddenly, something shimmered in the distance. A city appeared, seemingly condensing out of the very air. Carson stopped, stared in disbelief, and rubbed his tired eyes.
“Mirage,” he croaked, his dull mind trying to comprehend what now stood clearly in his vision. Carson uttered a sound, the parody of mirth. The heat, I’m going mad, he thought. A hallucination engendered by Grandfather’s diary.
A wind sprang up. Streamers of sand lashed him with their grainy whips. Turning, he saw a dark, ground-hugging cloud surging towards him from the horizon - a sandstorm!
The vanguard of searing particles burned Carson’s skin, the pain rousing him from his daze. To be caught unprotected in a simoom was death. He knew he had to find shelter, and fast.
His eyes desperately sought the phantom city. It was still there, its outlines shimmering with a faint opalescence, but despite the weirdness of its appearance and doubts about his own sanity, Carson felt there was an underlying reality to the buildings, a solidity that offered protection from the rapidly approaching storm.
Carson sprinted towards the apparition; hope infusing his tired limbs with new energy as he forged through the soft sand that sucked perversely at his running feet. The wind grew; the storm rolled closer catching him in its edges, a vast insensate monster of whirling sand that beat upon him with the flaying intensity of a million vitreous knives.
The city vanished in a haze. Death loomed ever closer, stabbing Carson with icy fingers of fear. He gave way to resignation – it had been a hallucination after all. Wait - there it was, dimly visible through a rent in the flying veils of sand, the fringe of date palms on its outskirts so near, and yet so far.
The storm enveloped him fully, a howling demon that struck his exhausted body with fists of quartz. Carson fought to stay upright. He knew if he fell he probably wouldn’t get up. Holding a bandanna over his face with both hands as protection from the flying sand that sought to choke his lungs and blind his eyes, Carson staggered in grim desperation towards where he had last glimpsed the enigmatic buildings.
The simoom reached its crescendo – a vast mass of elemental fury that cried a dirge of death in all consuming rage, immense and implacable as an irate Titan. A strange glow appeared before Carson’s eyes - a barrier of some kind? He stumbled; fell against its tingling resilience, the force of the wind flattening him against the strange surface, which seemed to have sliced through a section of the city’s high mud brick wall.
Carson prepared himself for the end. His strength was nearly spent and even if the gale abated he knew he couldn’t take another step. Then, to his amazement, he began to sink into the strange barrier. It was like passing through a viscous fluid of liquefied power that prickled his nerves with electric force.
Desperately, Carson tried to breath, but couldn’t – he was suffocating in this weird substance. Panic threatened to engulf him, and he was hard pressed to fight it down. An idea suddenly sprung into conscious thought. Calling upon the dregs of his strength, Carson struck out like a swimmer, propelling himself through the barrier with arms and legs, and with a final frantic lunge broke through and fell exhausted upon the ground.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)